Denmark considers tightening regulations on water extraction despite Poland Spring opposition

The proposed changes come as statewide efforts to curb large-scale extraction have failed in recent years.
Meeting attendees sit in chairs around a room.
Residents in Denmark gathered in May to discuss changes to the town’s water extraction ordinance. Photo by Emmett Gartner.

After years of work, Denmark is on the cusp of major changes to its ordinance that would curtail large-scale water extraction in the town — an industry largely occupied by the bottled water behemoth Poland Spring. 

The changes, which will be presented at a June 26 town forum, would block future Denmark officials from loosening restrictions on water sources and require more rigorous monitoring from extraction entities on the sources they draw from.

They also acknowledge the influence of climate change on drought and groundwater reserves as a reason for protecting local water through regulation. 

In an era of volatile weather and unreliable precipitation, the proposals appear to be some of the most aggressive recent efforts by a Maine municipality attempting to protect its water, following repeated efforts by advocates for tougher regulations on bottling companies.

Denmark, an Oxford County town about 41 miles northwest of Portland, has been a Maine leader in local water extraction regulations, establishing its landmark ordinance in 2005. The original document created a separate permitting process for water extraction that included measures to protect groundwater reserves.

Such ordinances go beyond the state’s groundwater regulations, where the Department of Environmental Protection oversees large-scale wells, and the Department of Health and Human Services manages the safety and transport of drinking water.

Shapleigh and Newfield, in York County, went on to draw from Denmark’s playbook in 2009, passing even more stringent regulations after Poland Spring, then owned by Nestlé, drilled test wells nearby (Nestlé ultimately withdrew from the area).

Once a trailblazer, Denmark has gone over a decade since last updating its ordinance in 2012. Meanwhile, Nestlé sold Poland Spring and its other bottled water brands to two private equity firms in 2021. The new owners changed the name of Poland Spring’s parent company to BlueTriton Brands. BlueTriton agreed this week to merge with Primo Water, forming a company called NewCo (the name is a common corporate placeholder until a new name is announced), which will have nearly two dozen water brands.

It wasn’t until late 2021, after Poland Spring asked to renew its extraction permit to annually withdraw 105 million gallons of water (around 150 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth), that the Denmark select board decided to designate a town committee to analyze and recommend ordinance updates. The changes will eventually be put to a town vote. 

Meeting for the first time in May 2022, the water ordinance review committee’s early discussions were partially spent wrestling with the ordinance’s language and the makeup of the committee itself.

The committee’s initial structure included a non-voting member from Poland Spring — Mark DuBois, the company’s natural resource manager — in addition to a selectman, three citizen volunteers and the town manager who comprised the voting members. 

Minutes of a January 2023 meeting describe citizen members Laurie LaMountain and Audrey Rabinowitz questioning whether DuBois should be copied on emails between voting committee members. Luke Allocco, the third citizen member and former Denmark selectmen, said that as a committee member DuBois should be looped in.

In that same meeting, members said the town was at an expertise disadvantage because unlike Poland Spring, Denmark didn’t have a legal or technical consultant attend meetings.

LaMountain and Rabinowitz then sent a formal email to the select board, repeating those concerns and requesting the removal of Poland Spring’s nonvoting spot because it “raises additional conflicts issues – or at a minimum, the appearance of impropriety.” 

Although select board members didn’t believe there was a conflict of interest, they voted to remove Poland Spring’s nonvoting position, according to town manager Betty LeGoff.

The town also hired a hydrogeologist from Westbrook-based engineering firm Credere Associates, who began attending meetings. The committee drafted and sharpened substantial amendments to the ordinance through late last month.

Ordinance changes acknowledge shifting climate 

The ordinance changes begin by acknowledging the influence of climate change on drought and groundwater reserves as a reason for protecting local water through regulation. 

Other amendments drew significant debate at a May 23 meeting, when committee members reviewed BlueTriton’s comments on drafted amendments ahead of a June public hearing. Throughout the two-hour meeting, members revisited past disagreements over the ordinance’s purpose.

One committee-proposed update, for example, tweaks language defining “alert” and “action” levels, variables that measure the condition and depth of water sources near an extraction well that are monitored through weekly testing.

As currently written, reaching an “alert” level requires the extractor, i.e. Poland Spring, to increase monitoring activities until hydrogeologic conditions no longer indicate potential or future harm to the water sources, but allows the company to keep drawing water.

When the more critical “action” level is hit, meaning the water resource is at risk of being damaged, the select board (with advice from a technical expert) can reduce or halt extraction until it determines that any risk or harm to the water source and neighboring wells or water bodies has subsided.

Whereas the current ordinance allows the select board to revise the levels and make them more or less lenient based on monitoring data, a new provision proposed by the committee would only allow the select board to further restrict levels unless there’s evidence of an error. 

BlueTriton representatives suggested cutting that line. 

There’s no technical reason, if the data supports it, not to allow the board to relax the action and alert levels,” they argued. The pushback led to disagreement among committee members about the ordinance’s goals.

One group — LaMountain and Rabinowitz, the members who had questioned Poland Spring’s place on the committee — described the phrasing as a way to make the ordinance as strong as possible. 

LaMountain pointed to an example in 2012, when the select board relaxed the action and alert levels for some Poland Spring wells after the company requested it.

“We wanted to put in failsafes so that in the future, we don’t have to worry about these things,” said Rabinowitz. 

“So what you’re saying, in essence, is that you’re going to tie the hands of someone today because you don’t trust the people in the future?” Alloco, the third citizen member and former selectman,  asked Rabinowitz.

“I don’t think trust enters in. I really don’t. I think it’s just about making it as strong and as safe as we can,” Rabinowitz responded.

The committee ultimately voted to keep the stricter provision in the draft ordinance for now, along with changes that would require extraction applicants to conduct more thorough hydrogeologic studies before applying for a permit, and have more frequent monitoring after extraction begins, uploading data to the town website daily.

Under another proposal, extraction entities could not transfer ownership of their permits unless they receive town approval and demonstrate an ability to abide by the ordinance.

BlueTriton did not directly answer how the committee’s proposed amendments would affect the company’s operations, if at all, when asked by The Maine Monitor.  

Instead, a BlueTriton spokesperson provided a statement saying that the company supports “reasonable science-based natural resource oversight, focused on quality and quantity that is designed to be protective of this important resource and equitable among users while being environmentally sustainable.”

Towns step in as statewide restriction efforts fail  

The amendments come as statewide efforts to curb large-scale water extraction have largely failed in recent years despite a surge of activism and droughts, with the most recent droughts cropping up in the summers between 2020 and 2022, according to the Maine Climate Office. 

The 2020 drought lasted through September and caused some of the worst drought conditions in over a century for York, Cumberland, northern Penobscot and Aroostook counties, stressing groundwater and streamflows. (The Piscataquis River, for example, was at its lowest depth in over 117 years).

Though Maine precipitation will likely increase due to climate change, warming temperatures with high evaporation rates and humidity could lead to intensified periods of drought, drying surface water soon after it falls, according to a report issued in 2020 by the Maine Climate Council.

Because that precipitation is also falling more as rain than snow, the report notes, the spring melt that recharges Maine’s aquifers could decrease, accentuated by extended periods of low streamflow from prolonged hot and dry conditions in late summer and early fall.

Advocates for safeguards on Maine’s water extraction industry argue that the threat of these conditions necessitated L.D. 1111, a bill introduced in 2023 that would have limited the length of contracts to three years between bottled water companies and municipalities.

In February, after heavy opposition from BlueTriton and local water districts, a weakened version of the bill failed, as did another measure to stop the automatic transfer of a water extraction permit when a company sells its assets. 

One of the most restrictive legislative proposals on water extraction came in 2019. It would have imposed a two-year moratorium on new extraction agreements for more than 75,000 gallons of water per week between a company and a town or water district.

During that time, a work group would study Maine’s water supplies and infrastructure, then recommend steps to safeguard both. It never made it out of committee.

The state’s existing regulations on water extraction task the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection with oversight. In general, DHHS ensures the water is safe to drink while DEP permits the development of larger wells, and monitors pumping rates and groundwater levels. 

Some officials have stepped in to fine-tune regulations in their towns beyond the statewide regulations. Local ordinances are often sparked by Poland Spring’s exploration of nearby water sources or by changes and renewals to existing local extraction permits, which was the case in Denmark.

The 105 million gallons of water that Poland Spring can pull from its Cold Spring site in Denmark each year is lower than the thresholds many other Maine municipalities and water districts have set for the bottled water company, although some Denmark residents and water ordinance committee members say it’s still too much. 

The average Mainer uses around 35,000 gallons of water per year, according to the Maine Geological Survey. Rumford Water District, which serves 4,500 people (and has a deal with Poland Spring), used about 235 million gallons in 2022, its annual report said. 

Near the company’s namesake spring in Poland, for example, Poland Spring can extract 398 million gallons of water annually from two wells, although it only used 179 million gallons in 2022, DEP permitting data shows.

Poland Spring rarely neared the maximum allocation amount at any of its springs permitted by the department, according to the same dataset. The closest it got to its limit was in Hollis, where the 247 million gallons the company withdrew in 2022 was just 14 million shy of what it’s permitted. 

The company’s extraction activity in Hollis that year also made it Poland Spring’s most-used groundwater source of its 11 wells permitted by DEP (though there are a few water sources the dataset does not include), a superlative it took by almost 100 million gallons.

Those withdrawals came in the midst of a third summer of drought in York County and Maine, sparking controversy when Poland Spring requested another 30 million gallons more than permits allowed, The Monitor reported at the time.

After immense pressure from residents, the company dropped its request.

Nickie Sekera, who heads Community Water Justice, a Maine water rights group out of Fryeburg, told The Monitor she hopes other towns will look at Denmark’s movement and pursue their own regulatory updates.

“Our organization has been educating communities about the merits of adopting water protection ordinances that would extend improved groundwater protections to vital aquifers from excessive exports and over-extraction,” Sekera said in an email.

Officials reached by The Monitor in Poland, Hollis and Fryeburg said they had not seen any push to update ordinances.

In Denmark, a combination of residents’ concerns about climate change, a 2016 drought and the fluctuating water levels of a local pond in 2021 raised local interest in updating the ordinance, according to LaMountain, who coordinated community action at that time. 

Then, when Poland Spring was purchased by the two private equity firms, more alarms started going off.

“We never thought of” addressing ownership transfer, said LaMountain, who spoke to The Monitor about her activism before the committee was formed — not her work as a committee member. 

“We didn’t do that the first time around. So we were like, ‘We really need something in there about transfer of ownership and put some guardrails on that.’ ”

Around that time in 2021, when Poland Spring also received a permit renewal, LaMountain began pushing the select board to update its ordinance.

Dry well investigation finds no fault with Poland Spring

While reports of dry wells near Poland Spring’s withdrawal sites periodically circulate in the media, only one has been officially reported to DEP in the past decade, according to records obtained by The Monitor. The state investigates all reports of dry wells, and none have been connected to Poland Spring extraction.

The records, which cover all reports made to DEP relating to Poland Spring or its parent companies between 2013 and 2024, documented only one complaint of a dry well. 

It was a 30- to 40-foot-deep well serving a residence near Poland Spring’s extraction site in Hollis, according to the records, which residents claimed went dry in the fall of 2015. 

In response, DEP staff organized an investigation into the well and coordinated with Poland Spring. A department geologist, John Hopeck, reviewed data from monitoring wells near the dry well and found nominal changes in groundwater levels over the months leading up to the complaint.

Had there been an overall drawdown in groundwater, Hopeck wrote in an email, the monitor wells would have been most affected — meaning the issue was likely the well system itself, which Hopeck recommended analyzing.

Poland Spring’s DuBois later met with the residents and contracted a plumbing company to further investigate the well, according to an email exchange with DEP staff.

The plumber ultimately restored water flow by replacing a missing drive point, faulty piping and adding a new pump tank at no cost to the residents, according to a memo sent to DEP from Woodard & Curran, an environmental engineering firm contracted by Poland Spring.

Another Hollis resident filed a complaint less than a year later, this time regarding water levels at Lily Pond. The department passed the complaint to Poland Spring and DuBois, who said he would meet with the complainant and present a report that showed surface water levels that year were consistent with previous years.

Though the department investigates these complaints, they do not have a formal process for addressing and resolving them, according to Mark Margerum, a policy expert in DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality.

Extraction cap floated; shot down

Denmark water committee members continued to spar even as the May meeting wound to a close and twilight fell on the green grass of the baseball diamond outside the town office, which installed stadium lights in 2021 with the help of a $16,180 donation from Poland Spring.

In the waning minutes of the meeting, LaMountain and Rabinowitz made a last effort to set a water extraction cap for Denmark.

The cap, which had been floated and shot down at previous committee meetings, would limit water extraction to 105 million gallons per year — though there was some confusion about whether the phrasing would only apply to large-scale extraction permitted by the ordinance or all water users.

The amendment ultimately failed, with Rabinowitz and LaMountain voting in favor, and Allocco, LeGoff and Andrew Kruczek, the select board member and chair, voting against. 

The cap could still be revived if residents support the idea at the June 26 public hearing, after which the committee will have one more meeting to finalize the draft before it is sent to the select board. 

Beyond that, it will be up to the select board to reject or confirm the recommendations and add any of their own, according to LeGoff, and there will be more public hearings for town residents to sway board members.

Residents and board members may encounter the same dilemmas the committee weighed: the purpose of the ordinance itself, and whether restriction or feasibility is the ultimate goal of town water regulations.

“Do we want to create a document that is as tight as we can make it, leaving as little up to suggestion as possible?” Alloco asked. 

Reporter Emmett Gartner can be reached at emmett@themainemonitor.org.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Shapleigh and Newfield are in York County, not Oxford and to clarify that NewCo is a placeholder name.

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Emmett Gartner

Emmett Gartner covers accountability and Maine's rural communities as a Roy W. Howard Fellow through the Scripps Howard Fund. Emmett earned his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Vermont. While working as a reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, he helped produce two award-winning investigations: “Printing Hate,” which documented the historic role of newspapers inciting racial lynchings, and “Mega Billions,” which investigated state lottery operations. Most recently, Emmett reported on health and environment for The Frederick News-Post in Maryland. He previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and interned for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
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